Department of Education's Princeton Investigation -- A Contrarian Take

Outside Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (Dominick Reuter/Reuters)

News broke yesterday evening that the Department of Education has opened an investigation into Princeton University, a couple of weeks after university president Christopher L. Eisgruber asserted in an open letter that “racist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in structures of the University itself.”

“Based on its admitted racism, the U.S. Department of Education . . . is concerned Princeton’s nondiscrimination and equal opportunity assurances in its Program Participation Agreements from at least 2013 to the present may have been false,” department officials wrote in a letter to Princeton announcing the investigation.

Just after news of the investigation became public, Princeton released a PR statement in response, the upshot of which was, in essence, “You’re supposed to take us seriously but not literally.”

”Princeton has long been committed to creating and maintaining a community where all can thrive, and stands by its representations to the Department and the public that it complies with all laws and regulations governing equal opportunity, non-discrimination and harassment,” the statement read in part. “This work is core to the University’s teaching and research mission, and we are vigilant in our pursuit of equity in every aspect of our programs and operations.”

Nevertheless, Princeton doubled down on Eisgruber’s assertion from his September 2 open letter: “The University also stands by our statements about the prevalence of systemic racism and our commitment to reckon with its continued effects, including the racial injustice and race-based inequities that persist throughout American society. ”

The statement also decried the Department of Education, saying it “appears to believe that grappling honestly with the nation’s history and the current effects of systemic racism runs afoul of existing law.”

Regardless of one’s views about the accuracy or sincerity of Eisgruber’s initial comments, or about the prudence of the Education Department’s decision to open the investigation, the entire situation exposes the Catch-22 of the Left’s approach to rectifying social and racial injustice.

Almost certainly, when he wrote his initial letter confessing that racism remains “embedded” at Princeton, Eisgruber imagined that having made this assertion — in his view, it seems, more an admission of guilt than an assertion — would earn the university some kind of praise from the entities it wishes to pacify. At the very least, it’s hard to believe he would have issued such a statement, surely vetted by other responsible parties within the university, had the institution felt it unnecessary to say anything about Princeton’s history of racism and supposed ongoing complicity in that racism.

The institution wouldn’t have made this statement except under duress, feeling in the current climate some sort of pressure to admit its guilt, pressure so strong that it outweighed the understandable fear of whatever consequences might follow having admitted to racism. It isn’t hard to see where this pressure might come from, as the Left increasingly insists that declining to trumpet one’s complicity in racism is itself a violation of racial justice.

Judging from Princeton’s indignant response to the Education Department’s investigation, Eisgruber and his fellows assumed that, having made the requisite apologies and confessions, absolution and perhaps even canonization were their due.

Instead, they’ve been taken at their word. It’s hard to have much sympathy.

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